Operon, the Aragonese biotech company that stands out for its commitment to R&D and, above all, for its focus on the foreign market, has been in existence for almost 50 years and is present in more than 200 countries, either under its own brand or with others that purchase its products. Half a century of existence in which this family company looks to the future with a new plant that it expects to open next year and that will multiply in PLAZA practically by five its current facilities in Cuarte de Huerva (Zaragoza), with a leap that will also mean an increase of 20% of its workforce.
These are some of the credentials of a company specializing in the development of molecular in vitro diagnostic tests that began in 1973 with Fernando Toribio, father of its current managing director, Tomás Toribio. The latter figures its international position with a presence in more than 50 countries as its own brand, a number that rises to over 200 if the territories to which its products reach under the seal of its customers are added.
The company, which in 2021 had a turnover of close to 9 million euros, has been a pioneer in its field. Proof of this is the importance of R&D for Operon, where around 25% of its current workforce of more than 80 employees – 85% of whom are women – are dedicated to this area. Also, that in 1986 it was the first company to begin research and production of monoclonal antibodies, and that in the 1990s it was a pioneer in the development, manufacture and sale of immunochromatography tests.
It was also one of the first Spanish companies to develop, manufacture and sell tests based on molecular diagnostic techniques at the beginning of 2004. Its first product in this line was the ThromboStrip, based on the genotyping of mutations associated with the risk of venous thrombosis.
The all-encompassing value chain
“At Operon we go from the idea to the product on the market,” says Toribio about the value chain they manage; “we cover everything,” he says. In fact, their activity even includes the control of raw materials, such as antibodies for different diseases, which are necessary to create diagnostic tests, which they manage to obtain from their own animal facility. “This is what differentiates us from the competition, we like to control the raw materials,” he says.
A process that the managing director explains: “If you get infected, you generate antibodies to fight the virus. The sequence involves injecting the virus into the mouse and then extracting the cell that produces the antibody and taking that cell to a bioreactor and doing it ‘in vitro’ so as not to have to use animals,” he says.
His factory in Zaragoza also produces rapid tests, one of their areas of activity, in which they are specialists in gastrointestinal and respiratory tests. “We have been doing them for 32 years, we started with the pregnancy test and we have a very varied palette of 50-60,” says the managing director, who specifies that, obviously, they also have them for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes covid-19. Regarding the pandemic period, the company’s manager recalls that it was “a stressful time”, with production running from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Within these rapid tests, Operon’s portfolio also includes some specific products for the food and veterinary industries, or, for example, tumor markers.
Its portfolio also includes test readers, devices that, among other facilities, allow data to be saved, exported to the cloud and worked with in real time. The company also offers several products related to celiac disease or lactose-related ailments.
Another of its areas of action, “very important”, as Toribio points out, is molecular and PCR testing, which includes a platform they developed a decade ago that allows them to have up to 24 markers at the same time.
In this field, their best product is the one developed for human papillomavirus, a pathogen that has nearly 100 variants, of which eight high-risk variants and another eight low-risk variants account for 95% of the cases. “It’s the product we sell the most,” he adds.
An international journey
The origins of this company date back to 1973, when his father, Fernando, created it. A native of the Albarracín mountains, the founder studied chemistry and later obtained a scholarship in Germany to study for a doctorate. There he met the woman who would become his wife and mother of the current director.
On his return to Spain, after spending two years in the United States completing a postdoc, the founder was hired by the milk manufacturing company Anfimón in the Aragonese capital, where he underwent technical ‘recycling’ and learned about immunological reactions.
This new knowledge was the seed of Operon, which just a few years after starting its journey changed its focus to the international market. Next year it will celebrate its half-century anniversary, an anniversary it hopes to celebrate at its new PLAZA facilities. There, in the industrial platform in Zaragoza, they plan to expand from the current 4,000 square meters to the almost 18,000 square meters that make up the new surface area.
The project contemplates several phases, with a first phase that foresees the erection of 9,000 square meters distributed in two buildings, which will double the space capacity of the current facilities.
The first of these buildings will have a garage, production rooms, dining rooms and changing rooms, offices, meeting rooms and laboratories distributed over several floors. The second, annex, will be for production and storage areas.
“The possibilities for PLAZA are enormous; it is practically a five-fold increase in both the land and the possible construction,” says Toribio about the construction of new facilities, which he is “looking forward to”.
But the company will not only grow in size, but also in staff. In this way, and with this expansion, Operon contemplates a 20% increase in the number of workers. An expansion that will increase the size of a leading company with its sights set on the exterior, but rooted in the territory.